Lord Nelson’s plumber

20151214_113147 (2)She broke between the enemy and fired a treble shotted broadside from a range of a few yards. Fifteen minutes later, Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, was dead, shot on the quarter deck of his flagship. Over a century later, the genome of history weaved its way from Trafalgar, into the hands of a Brisbane plumber.

Brisbane’s City Hall boasts a tower based on St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. It has the largest copper dome in the southern hemisphere. Inside is a stained glass window by William Bustard, who also illustrated Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island. There are works by renowned sculptor Daphne Mayo. Gracing the stairs is white marble from the same Italian quarry as Michelangelo’s Renaissance masterpiece, David.

It was built through the 1920s and opened in the depths of the Depression. Queen Elizabeth, Charles and Diana, Shirley Bassey, Dolly Parton, and a 21-year-old Mick Jagger in his first tour, were all destined to visit.

But there was a problem. The cost had blown out to £980,000 making it the second most expensive building project in Australia, behind only the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It wasn’t even finished, and money had run out. Then magic happened. Someone dipped into their pocket and a £5 note emerged. It was placed into the hands of plumber Fred Johnson. A lightning rod was needed to finish the work. For his design, he got the copper ball from a toilet cistern, and mounted it inside a metal cage. With a wink to history, Fred hid an unofficial time capsule inside. In it was the newspaper of the day, duly read, and signed by the workman. He included an Australian flag. Fred’s moment in time, atop the 91 metre clock tower, remains unopened to this day.

Fred was no ordinary plumber. He was president of the Queensland Master Plumbers Association. And as past chair of the Master Plumbers of Australia, his name was on a sliver-mounted gavel which he used at the national conference. It was made from the wood of HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Fred, having used a relic of Nelson’s ship that saved the empire, turned his plumbing to good. He rescued Brisbane’s honour by sacrificing his toilets cistern.


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